Thursday, May 10, 2012

And I can take or leave it if I please

[TW for discussion of suicide]

I saw Terry Pratchett last Friday! I didn't confirm it was him at the time, because "Oh my god, Terry Pratchett!" would have come as embarrassingly fangirlish - or EXACTLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT of fangirlish, but I'll never know now - regardless of whether I had identified him correctly. (He's an honourary lecturer at the English Department in my college, so it wasn't entirely outlandish.) The head of department invited him to see the museum room, and then she and another lecturer got to have Fancy College Dinner with him and sit around afterwards drinking coffee and talking and I am chock-full of jealousy.

When I've bragged to brought this up with people, the subject of Pratchett's Alzheimer's and fight for his right to assisted dying has come up, with mixed reactions. Whenever the topic of euthanasia come up, I worry that I come across as overly clinical, even though my thoughts on it are mixed. On the subject of assisted dying, though, my support comes from purely undistanced selfishness.

I love to make things. I have done ever since I was a wee slip of a thing. I've never been the best at anything, but that has become less important over time. I hope to pursue a career in molecular biology, which requires dexterity, but that will probably end before my crafting does. If I had a degenerative disease where I eventually wouldn't be able to create something of my own, I would find that incredibly distressing. And that's just with it as an unskilled hobby - I can't imagine what it's like for someone like Pratchett, so witty and eloquent and masterful with words, to know that he will lose that faculty, that gift. For my own part, if I can't make something of my own, reading and films and other people's art, however beautiful, will not be enough. I would feel trapped.

Another reason I would like the option to end my life in such a situation is that I would feel isolated within myself. As life goals go, I prioritise being useful more highly than I do being happy. Crafts help with that because if I feel I amn't doing anything sufficiently worthy with my time, at least I made a hat! Not being able to create would be a genuine problem for me. If I lost the use of my hands (my worst-case scenarios always involve loss of my hands, I need them to make and read and talk to people who are far away), I wouldn't be able to work on my own projects, I wouldn't be able to conduct research, I wouldn't be much good to many voluntary organisations. I realise in The Future everything may be voice-automated, so I can just be all "DOOR, OPEN", "PHONE, ANSWER CALL FROM SUICIDE HOTLINE" but I don't want to plan for things that don't exist yet. Loss of my mental faculties frightens me because of the associated loss of independence. (The scene with the signing of King George Dumbledore IV's will in The King's Speech was difficult for me to watch.) I have given showers and bedbaths, and changed adult nappies, and I know that there's no shame in needing or accepting that kind of help, unless you think bodies are icky, in which case you should not be in health care. My fear stems from the fact that I need a reasonable amount of time to myself to remain functional. At the very least, the stability of my mental health requires the option to take a few days to be a recluse. (See also: Why I Do Not Want To Live With Someone With Whom I Am Romantically Involved.) If I need help to eat and clean myself, if it becomes unsafe for me to live alone, I will feel trapped in my own life.

This evening I watched Terry Pratchett's documentary, Choosing To Die. It deals mainly with two men who have elected to end their lives with the help of the Swiss organisation Dignitas. It's a difficult watch in parts, and at the end we see one of the men drink the poison that will kill him, though his death is not shown. Having been composed throughout, he undergoes some physical distress as he falls asleep, asking for water which can't be given to him. This scene made me cry and feel like the worst kind of voyeur, but holding the views I do, I feel it was important for me to watch.

One discomfort expressed by Pratchett is the fact that Dignitas offer their services to people who are not physically and mentally healthy, but have "grown weary of life". While it may sound strange, it reinforced my wish that suicide were more socially acceptable. Part of it is the stigma associated with mental health issues, but the notion that suicide is selfish also contributes. The healthiest take on it I've heard comes from a friend's rommate whose father killed himself - he said that he viewed his father's depression as a disease that could have killed him at any time, making suicide a symptom rather than a choice. While perfectly logical, it seems somehow improper to ignore the autonomy of the situation. Suicide is placing your own happiness before that of your loved ones, but asking someone to live a life they can't bear is placing your happiness before theirs. (Here's a good post about caring about your own needs! among other things.)

A friend of Hunter S. Thompson said after his death

He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn't know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don't know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable.

In the documentary, a spokesperson for Dignitas said that many people who have been given the green light for assisted dying do not follow through with it - the knowledge that the option is there is enough. If and when the zombie apocalypse comes, I think guns would be a terrible weapon as the noise would draw more zombies to you, but I want to have a gun with a single bullet in it. The primary use would be if I'm about to be torn apart by zombies, but it will also be used if I go for too long without any evidence that the plague is subsiding or that other people have survived and have some sort of plan (for my own definition of "too long").  I would like there to be a similar option in the zombie free-world, but with the condition being "if getting out of bed is a victory for too many days in a row." But I have friends who think that suicide is selfish, and I don't want my friends to think I'm selfish; I have parents who will live for many more years, and no parent should have to bury their child; my mum was raised on fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, and I wouldn't want her to worry I had gone to Hell. (My Catholic guilt has long outlasted my Catholic faith, contributing to my sense of obligation to hang around.) It would also be spectacularly selfish of me to make a decision I would never want my loved ones to make.

And yet. I don't have any desire to kill myself, but the lack of the option does make me feel caged. It makes living feel like an obligation rather than a choice. This is the crux of the issue of assisted dying, but I do think it spills over into every day life. Mental health issues that lead to suicidal ideation are treatable, but some people may not feel comfortable receiving treatment, just as some cancer patients may decline chemotherapy. We are all dying, and I think it would be healthier not to stigmatise those who want to accelerate the rate at which they do.

1 comment:

Jessica Córdova said...

I read a lot of adult science fiction as a child, and I remember being shocked by Time Enough for Love and Welcome to the Monkey House, which describe suicide as a right and a social good, respectively. After thinking it through, I agree with the first, but not the second just yet.

We should have the right to live as we choose, including stopping living for any reason. It is the most fundamental kind of freedom.

And, being a godless heathen, it *is* a comfort to know that suffering need not be endless.